GAA Football

From Lyons Cup to Dr Lagan Cup... The changing shape of the National Football League

This season's National Football League has been restructured into north and south groupings due to the Covid-19 pandemic but the 2021 format has been used before. Armagh GAA historian Brendy McCann takes a look at the development of the National Leagues…

The great Down team of the 1960s won five Lagan Cups in-a-row from 1960-64 as well as two National League tiles to complement their Sam Maguire successes during a golden period
Brendy McCann

THE National Football League makes a welcome return this weekend and some may view this year’s format as a new and novel approach as a consequence of the ongoing Global pandemic.

The splitting of each division based on geography, where teams initially play three round robin games before play-offs decide silverware, promotion and relegation issues, will certainly provide great excitement in the weeks ahead, but within the province of Ulster, the four-team round robin format mirrors previous National League competitions and surrogate tournaments held in generations past.

Whilst this year’s format may be more recently associated with the Super 8s or the four-team groupings in the Dr McKenna Cup this style of competition brings us back to the dawn of the National Football League in the 1920s.

The first National Football League was played in 1925 and didn’t conclude until September 19, 1926. At that time, the League did not run on an annual basis and with no 1926-27 edition planned, Armagh and Monaghan made links with Meath and Louth to form a four-county league which Armagh began with a 2-6 to 3-2 win over the Wee County on August 1, 1926.

14 months later, Armagh became the first Ulster county to win an All-Ireland title when the juniors overcame Dublin in an exciting decider.

In the autumn of 1932, Antrim and Armagh were among the counties that chose to withdraw from the National League and in the following years Meath, Louth, Monaghan and Armagh formed a four-county league, named the Lyons Cup, which caught the imagination of the public. Huge crowds flocked to games and that caught the eye of administrators.

In GAA Jubilee year, the counties returned to the National League fold as a special Jubilee knockout competition was held. Armagh beat Donegal in December of that year in the final of the competition, before a successful appeal by Fermanagh saw a replay of the final with the Ernemen now facing the Orchard. Armagh won and earned a subsequent berth in a first national final.

The emergence of the Dr Lagan Cup during World War II in 1942 (in which all Ulster counties except for Cavan played) had a structure which bears a striking resemblance to this year’s NFL format and it shaped the next generation of the League for the province of Ulster.

Soon recognised as a formula that was successful, the competition became the Northern Section of the NFL soon after its resumption post-war.

This model continued until the end of the 1966-67 campaign and during its tenure, the great Down team of the 1960s won five Lagan Cups in-a-row from 1960-64 as well as two National League tiles to complement their Sam Maguire successes during a golden period.

Following the trend of the League being an accurate indicator of Championship success, Armagh won three Dr Lagan Cups in-a-row just after their All-Ireland Final appearance in 1953 and victory in the late 1950s in successive seasons was a useful marker in the progress made by Tyrone in achieving their breakthrough Ulster Senior Football title.

Perhaps one of the biggest plaudits for this format though, came in the 1967-68 season, when a restructuring saw the League transform into a system which is almost identical to this year’s format.

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GAA Football